Rare and Collectible Books

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Collectors are willing to pay steep prices for the world’s finest photography books. Rare editions from the likes of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn and Ansel Adams are among the most sought-after of all art books. Sometimes these books have captured an era or a location, sometimes they have helped to coin an artistic trend, sometimes they are simply the finest work of a particular photographer. Enjoy our list of the top 10 most collectible photography books of all time (plus there are five more wonderful books that failed to make the top 10).

Les Americains by Robert Frank
1. The Americans
Robert Frank

Frank’s best known work is The Americans – a remarkable photographic insight into US culture of the 1950s. Initially criticized as an assault on America, the book is now celebrated as one of the most influential works of 20th century photography.  Gleaned from 28,000 photos taken over two years, Frank juxtaposes 1950s optimism with America’s poverty and racial issues. The true first edition was published in Paris as Les Américains – no US publisher would touch it. A 50th anniversary edition was released in 2008.

Les Américains 1958 first edition

1959 first US edition

2008 editions

Paris de Nuit - Paris by Night by Brassai. Introduction by Paul Morand
2. Paris de Nuit
Brassaï (aka Gyula Halász)

Brassaï was the pseudonym of Gyula Halász - a Hungarian photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker who is best known in France. While working as a journalist, he took countless photos of Paris after dark - Paris de Nuit was his first published book of photographs. First editions of this 1933 book are spiral bound and are very rare. Paris de Nuit created a sensation when first published – many images were considered too risqué for public viewing.

1933 first editions

Later editions

Images  la Sauvette or The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson
3. The Decisive Moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson

A pioneer of photojournalism and the reportage style of photography, Cartier-Bresson published Images à la sauvette (The Decisive Moment) in 1952.The book's memorable cover was drawn by Henri Matisse, who died in 1954. A lengthy essay prefaces the book with Cartier-Bresson’s thoughts on why everything has a decisive moment. The most expensive copy of The Decisive Moment sold by AbeBooks went for $5,000.

1952 French first editions

1952 American first editions

Twentysix Gasoline Stations by Ed Ruscha
4. Twentysix Gasoline Stations
Ed Ruscha

Like the title suggests, the book features photos of 26 gas stations along Route 66 and contains no text except the station’s brand and location. This book, Ruscha’s first, eventually achieved cult status and launched his career in Pop Art.  Originally published in 1963, Gasoline Stations was limited to 400 copies. Two subsequent editions of the book were published, of 500 copies in 1967 and of 3,000 copies in 1969.

1963 first editions

Later editions

Evidence by Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan
5. Evidence
Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan

Mandel and Sultan sifted though thousands of photos that had been used by various corporations and government institutions as objective instruments (ie the evidence) and placed them together in a single volume stripping them of their original context.  The book introduced readers to the multiple meanings an image could take on when devoid of its original context.   Originally published in 1977, this landmark book was reprinted in 2003. The most expensive copy sold by AbeBooks went for $2,200.

1977 first editions

2003 reprints

Moments Preserved by Irving Penn
6. Moments Preserved
Irving Penn

The first book from legendary fashion photographer Irving Penn, published in 1960 with a print run of 20,000 (divided between French, Italian, German and English editions).  Penn spent his early career with Vogue magazine and was among the first to pose subjects against simple grey or white backdrops.  Moments Preserved is an overview of these early years in his career which started in 1943. Penn died in October 2009. The most expensive copy sold by AbeBooks went for $1,600.

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Let us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee & Walker Evans
7. Let us Now Praise Famous Men
James Agee & Walker Evans

James Agee and Walker Evans were sent to rural Alabama in 1936 to document the plight of sharecroppers for a magazine article, however it ballooned into a 500-page documentary.  Evans’ remarkable black and white photo’s combined with Agee’s sympathetic text made this a defining essay on tenant farmers in the dustbowl.  The most expensive copy sold by AbeBooks went for $2,500.

1941 first editions

Later editions

Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail Ansel Andams
8. Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail
Ansel Adams

Adams’ first book of photographs, published in 1938 with a limited run of only 500 copies.  Sierra Nevada was commissioned by a Sierra Club president as a tribute to his son who died in a climbing accident.  Adams’ striking images set a new standard for photo books and provided him with a launching pad for his amazing career where he captured the American West and most famously Yosemite National Park.

1938 first editions

2006 reprints

I Want to Take Picture by Bill Burke
9. I Want to Take Picture
Bill Burke

Part travelogue, part art, I Want to Take Picture follows Burke though Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia as he explores South East Asia and the Khmer Rouge.  The project is credited with having dealt a fatal blow to the preconceived notion that documentary photography was a vehicle for absolute truth.  First published in 1987 with a limited edition of 1,000 hard-bound copies. Much cheaper reprints are available. The most expensive copy sold by AbeBooks went for $2,250.

1987 first editions

2007 reprints

Antarctica by Pat and Rosemarie Keough
10. Antarctica
Pat & Rosemarie Keough

A stunning set of photographs capturing the natural beauty of the last unsettled continent on Earth, featuring photos of panoramic snow fields and majestic emperor penguins.  Published in 2007, this mammoth collection weighs in at 27 pounds and was limited to 950 leather-bound copies. It was part of an effort to raise money and awareness to prevent the extinction of the albatross. The most expensive copy sold by AbeBooks went for $4,000.

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And Five Books That Didn't Make the Top Ten

G.O.A.T.- Greatest of All Time by Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons

Greatest Of All Time is the pinnacle of collectible sports books with 3,000 images of memorabilia, art and photographs about Muhammad Ali.  It was published by Taschen in 2004 with a print run of 9,000 copies, all of which were signed by Koons and Ali. This monster book weighs over 75 pounds – a true heavyweight champion of photography books.

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Sumo by Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton

The biggest and most expensive book production of the 20th century, Sumo had a limited edition print run of 10,000 copies worldwide - each signed and numbered by Helmut Newton.  Measuring 20 x 27.5 inches (50 x 70 cm), the book contains over 400 photos, mostly published for the first time, including many of his renowned nudes and celebrity photos.

1999 first editions

2009 reprints

Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha
Every Building on the Sunset Strip
Ed Ruscha

Another amazing compilation by Ruscha.  This book contains continuous photographs of a two-and-a-half mile stretch, of the 22-mile boulevard that is Sunset Strip.  It is presented as an accordion-fold page with the north side of the street on the top of the page and the south street inverted on the bottom.  Published in 1966, the first edition had a pressing of a thousand copies.

1966 self-published editions

1970 second printing

Thirtyfour Parking Lots by Ed Ruscha
Thirtyfour Parking Lots
Ed Ruscha

Self-published in 1967 Ruscha continues to transform the mundane and this time takes aerial views of (mostly) empty parking lots around the city of Los Angeles including those of the Hollywood Bowl and Dodger Stadium.

1967 self-published editions

1974 edition

Theaters by Hiroshi Sugimoto
Hiroshi Sugimoto

In Theaters, Hiroshi Sugimoto captures views of the interiors of cinemas by taking images from the projection room and setting exposures to the duration of the films.  Because the projector provides the sole lighting and the seats and building details are the only subjects the photographs have a very surreal feel.  AbeBooks has sold several copies at $1,800.

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In case you missed them the first time around:

Sexy, Controversial, Beautiful: Taschen Publishing

Ten Most Expensive Art Books Sold in 2008